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B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak says gas projects newly exempt from automatic environmental assessments are subject to approval processes from other government agencies.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The B.C. government is exempting about 99 per cent of the natural gas produced in the province from automatic environmental assessment reviews.

Under orders in council passed without public debate or fanfare on Monday, natural gas processing plants that produce less than two tonnes of sulphur emissions per day – "sweet" natural gas, as opposed to higher-emission "sour gas" – will no longer face the assessment as of April 28.

According to figures from the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission, that would account for about 99 per cent of the natural gas produced in the province.

And beginning Jan. 1 next year, ski and all-season resorts would also be exempt.

Environment Minister Mary Polak said such projects are subject to approval processes by other government agencies.

"This will reduce the duplication. Right now there are two process that are virtually identical," Polak said Tuesday.

The gas plants will continue to be regulated by the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission, she said.

But these changes go well beyond cutting red tape, said critics.

"We're viewing this as another step toward environmental deregulation," said Anna Johnston of West Coast Environmental Law.

"It's part of a sliding that we've been doing – divesting ourselves of responsibility over responsible development and making sure that the environmental and social impacts of industry are properly considered and analyzed before we approve projects."

Sweet gas requires relatively little purifying, whereas sour gas contains more than 1 per cent of toxic hydrogen sulphide, which must be removed before the gas can be used.

Reviews are currently triggered by the size of the plant and not by the level of emissions, the minister said.

"The risks associated with sour gas plants are what we are most concerned about. Sweet natural gas plants are currently regulated quite thoroughly through the oil and gas commission and they do not present the same hazard in terms of sulphur emission," Polak said.

"It's going back to a more scientific trigger."

Polak could not say what percentage of the province natural gas plants will be affected, however, the oil and gas commission said about 98.8 per cent of B.C.'s natural gas is sweet.

It's unclear whether the plants in the province's much-anticipated $1-trillion liquefied natural gas industry will trigger review under other provisions of the Environmental Assessment Act.

As for resorts, Polak said they will continue to be regulated by the Forests, Land and Natural Resources Ministry.

Those ministry processes are not public but documents are released to the public once a decision has been made, she said.

Both types of project remain subject to the province's Environmental Assessment Act and the minister can order a review. However, Johnston said she was aware of only one case where that has ever happened, and that was at the request of the project proponent.

"We just can't rely on these non-binding possibilities to ensure that all the potential impacts of projects get adequately assessed."

The federal government has brought in many changes to its own environmental assessment process. The Conservative government has imposed a mandatory timeline and restricted participation from outside parties.

Most controversially, Ottawa also removed the decision-making power of the federal review panel and put the final say in the hands of cabinet.

B.C. has come under fire for allowing the federal reviews to stand for the provincial assessment, in particular on the Northern Gateway pipeline review.

Provincially, Johnston said in the past few months the Liberal government has introduced legislation rewriting the Parks Act and revising the Agricultural Land Reserve, potentially opening both for oil and gas activity.

"Now we're seeing this removal of really important oversight for gas facilities and for resorts," she said. "In our view this just is another piece of that encouragement of industrial expansion at the expense of the health and safety of communities and the environment."